Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Expansion Troubles Span 15 Decades

Expansion Troubles Span 15 Decades
Bollinger Faces Many of The Same Issues as Low
By Josh HirschlandSpectator Staff Writer
April 28, 2006
In light of the controversy surrounding Columbia�s proposed expansion into West Harlem, it is important to remember that the University has faced a long history of struggling to find enough space to meet its lofty academic ambitions.
Including the Lamont-Doherty and medical center campuses, Columbia has averaged a new campus every fifty years.
As University President Lee Bollinger prepares to fund raise­­­�hard�for a campus in Manhattanville, he might consider the struggles and successes of Columbia�s last­­ major move, up to Morningside Heights, headed by former University President Seth Low 115 years ago.
For Low, as for Bollinger, acquisition of space dominated and shaped his presidency. The week before Low�s inauguration, Spectator printed an editorial stating, �It has been asserted, ... that the new administration will give particular attention to the building question. This will surely be encouraging news for our overcrowded departments, and particularly for the Library, which sadly needs a large addition as soon as possible.�
For Bollinger, the dual role of president and real estate agent was unexpected. �I knew that space was a critical issue but I didn�t know it was as critical as I learned,� Bollinger said.
Low�s first act as president was purchasing a $17,500 property near the midtown campus between 47th and 50th Streets where Columbia was located at the time. But it quickly became apparent that, due to increasing costs and decreasing space, continually purchasing add-on land in midtown would make expansion for the next century impossible.
In 1891, Low appointed a committee to quietly investigate expansion options. The committee quickly decided that the best plan would be to move to the current uptown Manhattan location. An uptown site would offer open grassy fields as well as access to all of the amenities of the city.
The Low plans were announced to grand adulation throughout the student body, the New York press, and the alumni, who, when the project was threatened by a bill in the state legislature to keep a road at 119th street, gathered 5,000 petition signatures to save it.
While Bollinger�s plans may not have garnered the same level of reverence as Low�s a century ago, a Spectator poll has found that a plurality of students support the expansion plans. The president has also received vocal and financial support from several alumni and trustees.
However, Low found himself unable to achieve the final step�finding money to fund the project�due to an inactive and ungenerous alumni group. According to architectural historian Andrew Dolkart�s book Morningside Heights, a capital campaign was only able to raise $136,150 from alumni�$100,000 of which came from William Schermerhorn. The trustees finally agreed to purchase the property, but the monetary issue continued to be a problem.
Construction wouldn�t begin for nearly four years after the land was purchased, and even then, happened only after Low shelled out $1 million from his own wallet to pay for the new library.
Bollinger now finds himself four years into his presidency in a similar situation, two steps along his path to a new campus. He has crafted an idea and begun to sell it to alumni. He has even begun translating this enthusiasm into tangible funds, like the $200 million donation by Don Greene to build a mind, brain, and behavior center.
But Bollinger�s mission is far from accomplished. The rezoning necessary for the project has yet to be approved by the city. The cost of the campus will likely be in the neighborhood of $4 billion. One year from now, Bollinger will be in the same place that Low was when his plans nearly fell apart. And he is aware of the struggles he faces.
�Universities live on dreams and it�s not like we have a pool of money just waiting for us to be tapped to do whatever we want to do,� Bollinger said in an interview last week. �You have to figure out what you�re going to do, then you have to go about persuading people that this is a good investment that they have to be a part of, and then you have to get the money.�
So the question remains�can Bollinger raise the cash he needs? If he can�t, one thing is clear. Bollinger, unlike Low, doesn�t have the money to save the project himself.

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